Tony Robinette always looked for the warm sign of acknowledgment during Waccamaw High’s junior varsity football games last season.
He filmed the school’s varsity and JV games, and his son Jesse, a linebacker on JV, always took a moment during the game to give his father a wave.
That wave would have come during varsity games this season, as Jesse was going to be a junior.
But the game films are void of that heartfelt gesture, and Jesse isn’t the only player tragically absent from Robinette’s footage.
The Waccamaw High football program was shocked by the suicides of two players who were both the sons of football staff members over a six-week span in the spring. A player who was going to be a sophomore this season was the first in April, and Jesse was the second in May.
“You think you know your children. You’ve raised them the way you thought, and come to find out there’s that side that you don’t know, and it is scary,” Tony Robinette said. “I miss him every day. He wasn’t just my son, he was my best friend. I look to parents out there and say tell your kids you love them every day and hug them because you never know when it will be the last time.”
Amid the painful healing process that continues, the school, program and families have been searching for answers and ways to possibly prevent the tragic loss of any more students to a near epidemic.
According to studies cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among people ages 10-34, and one in six U.S. youth ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
The most practical way school and football program leaders have decided to address the long-taboo and private subjects of suicide and mental illness are to talk about them often and consistently in the hopes of alleviating the stigma of seeking or receiving mental health assistance.
“I think talking about it is the No. 1 prevention,” said Bo Godbold, Waccamaw High’s new full-time Rehabilitative Behavioral Health Services counselor. “Just acknowledging it is probably the first thing you want to do, and that’s being done. We’re not pretending it didn’t happen or pretending it’s not a problem. I think the response has been great from that aspect.
“… We’re opening the conversations and that’s apparent because I’m having professionally lots of conversations about it with kids and staff.”
With support from the Waccamaw High administration, Warriors football coach Shane Fidler went public with the suicides in August in the hopes of helping others avoid the heartache that has permeated Waccamaw High and the Pawleys Island community.
While several other coaches talked football and joked at the traditionally lighthearted preseason CNB Kickoff Classic luncheon and news conference, Fidler spoke mostly about the pain he and his program were enduring.
“I don’t want any coach to have to do what I’ve done once, let alone twice,” Fidler said.
He decided to broach the topic at the podium while lying restlessly in bed one night, contemplating what he was going to say.
“I had a choice to make and I made it,” Fidler said. “The choice was very simple: I can put it on the backburner and not address it with anybody and act like it never happened, or we can try to bring awareness to the situation and try to get it to end. And that’s the decision I made.
“We at Waccamaw and our community are tired of it and we don’t want anyone else to have to deal with this, to have to experience the tragedy we’ve gone through and loss our kids have had to face. It’s not fair.”
The Sun News typically does not report on suicides, but chose to write this story because of Waccamaw High officials’ openness about their efforts to make mental illness a more public discussion.
Both students were considered to be well-adjusted kids, with heavy family involvement in their lives and several extracurricular activities producing multiple groups of friends.
“That’s why we’ll never know,” Fidler said. “You would have never expected these kids, ever. These kids were popular kids.”
Neither student acted unusual at school prior to their deaths. The first, who The Sun News is not naming because his parents respectfully chose to maintain their privacy and not be interviewed for the article, turned in homework after school the day of his death and shook Fidler’s hand the previous day and thanked him for coaching him.
“And that was not out of character for him,” Fidler said. “He would do that every practice.”
Six weeks later, Jesse called his father late one school day and they had about a 30-minute casual conversation roughly 90 minutes before he took his own life. “There were no obvious signs you would normally see,” Robinette said. “It was completely and totally a shock to us. We didn’t see it.”
Robinette said there were also no signs of unhappiness or bullying on Jesse’s social media pages or phone messages. “There’s nothing there that would put the red light up that you would see,” Robinette said. “I think what needs to happen also, and the school is doing a pretty good job about it, is when one child looks at the other one and says they’re going to harm themselves or kill themselves, it’s not a joke anymore.”
After the team was made aware of the first suicide, the football coaching staff helped identify players and other students who needed more guidance through the situation.
“We thought we were doing everything we could and then a couple weeks later a kid doesn’t show up for practice … and the second one happens,” Fidler said. “I had to break their hearts again. That’s something no coach, no person in leadership in sports or the school should ever have to do to kids or adults, and I’ve had to do it twice, and it’s tough and it’s heartbreaking.”
Fidler said school and community leaders have had to be delicate with the way the students have been remembered and memorialized.
“You can’t just go out there and have memorials and all that. You’ve got to be real diligent in how you remember the situation,” Fidler said. “It has to be more, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ We loved that student, we’ll miss them, but you have to bring up to the other students this is not okay. If you start glorifying the event, you don’t want more students to do it.”
Suicides aren’t new to the Pawleys Island community or many of those at Waccamaw High.
Waccamaw principal Adam George, who is in his second year as principal after two years as the school’s assistant principal, said the two in the spring are the only suicides by students in his tenure at the school. But he said there have been a few suicides by recent graduates over the past few years, including siblings of current students, and other additional attempts.
“I think the community as a whole has been dealing with this on a bigger scale,” George said. “As a community, as a school we were searching for answers at the end of the school year last year.
“There’s really no book or manual you can go to as far as how you deal with this as a school, as a community, as a family. When you go through tragedy you try to come together as best you can. Sometimes you feel like you’re doing everything you can for these students and obviously there’s something more you always can be doing. But it’s not necessarily a thing where if we had done x, y and z this would not have happened.”
Godbold spent the past two school years as a Waccamaw Center for Mental Health school-based counselor, which included one day a week at Waccamaw High serving the center’s patients enrolled at the school. He has not identified a condition at the school that would explain multiple suicides.
“I couldn’t speak to a particular culture that might have facilitated this because I haven’t recognized one,” he said.
‘A loving kid’
Jesse was the second youngest of Tony and Teresa Robinette’s six children. Their youngest son, Thomas, is a freshman on the Waccamaw JV football team.
Tony Robinette retired as a fireman in Columbus, Ohio, and the family moved in 2010 to Pawleys Island, where he works as a chief maintenance engineer at a resort.
Jesse wanted a military career in the Marines. All three of his older brothers are in the Army. “That’s what he talked about,” Tony Robinette said. “He was a child that had goals just like any other child, except something clicked in him that day that we didn’t know about.”
He had several interests. Jesse wrestled and played football at school, was a longtime Boy Scout, and was an active member of St. Peters Lutheran Church.
His tenacity was evident in football and wrestling. He was an undersized linebacker at just 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, and often wrestled up a weight class or two, facing opponents who weighed 10 to 12 pounds more than he did.
“Jesse was one that always worried about not being big enough, but Jesse played with heart,” his father said. “You want that in a player. He wasn’t afraid to take on anybody.”
Jesse was in the process of completing his community project to become an Eagle Scout. He was renovating the St. Peters funeral urn columbarium by adding solar light, perennial flowers, benches and other improvements. The family is finishing the project for him. “That was his church and that was his project to do,” Robinette said.
In lieu of flowers following his death, the family requested donations to the columbarium or the Waccamaw wrestling program.
Jesse, often at his mother’s behest, took on volunteer roles at the church, including assisting the ministers, and he traveled with St. Peter’s pastor Greg Van Dyke to a national youth gathering last year. He’d also often accompany his father to the occasional odd job that he’d accept.
He displayed leadership skills despite his youth. He was a senior patrol leader for his group at a summer camp, and he acquired a Stetson cowboy hat and had the other kids in the group calling him Big Poppa.
He was compassionate and thoughtful. Shortly after a woman who attended St. Peter’s became a widow, Jesse invited the woman to be his date to a sweetheart dinner at the church.
“That’s just what kind of kid he was. He looked out for everybody else,” Robinette said. “My son was a kid who would do just about anything for anybody. He was just a loving kid that’s missed.”
Jesse registered as an organ donor, so others have been saved by his organs. His parents have become Facebook friends with the recipient of a kidney and support Donate for Life, and Jesse’s car was donated to a veteran in need.
“We had to make something good come out of something so bad,” Robinette said. “One tragedy can turn into a blessing for someone else.”
The Robinette’s participated in a fundraising RISE Above the Dark Mental Health Awareness Walk that was held at Waccamaw High on Sept. 14-15, forming a team in Jesse’s name and raising a couple thousand dollars in donations. RISE is a local organization that aims to Recognize, Intervene, Support and Enlighten the community and provide resources to end the stigma surrounding mental health.
“If we get one message across to one person, then we succeeded, because no family should go through this. Mental health is an issue,” Robinette said. “We have to get the word out. If you break your arm you go to the doctor. Your mind needs fixing, too.”
The Robinettes still have pretty much all of Jesse’s possessions. “What kids don’t see is packing your child’s life up,” Robinette said. “We can’t get rid of nothing. We can’t. It’s in boxes. It’s his life. You don’t want to accept it’s over.”
Healing and prevention
Godbold said research shows you have to be cautious with the response to a suicide. The first six months require a healing process for those impacted, particularly youth, before diving deep into cause and prevention.
Waccamaw High is just now getting to the end of the healing period, though changes and new polices have already been introduced this school year to existing facilitators of positive mental health.
Lines of communication are the foundation.
“Let’s talk about it. Let’s not say, ‘Oh we can’t talk about suicide, we can’t talk about mental illness,’ because those are the things we need to talk about more often,” George said.
“A lot of people put a stigma on mental health, and we have to get rid of that stigma. It’s something that plagues a lot of people and we’re going to do the best job we can this school year of bringing it out into the light, and not shying away from those conversations and giving students a platform where they can talk about it, where they have an adult, have a trusted person on campus they can go to if they need to talk.”
Waccamaw High has integrated into its weekly class schedules something called Tribe Time, which is 30 minutes set aside every Wednesday for students to meet with a faculty member in groups of 20 students or less.
Students are placed in their Tribe based on similar interests disclosed in a survey, and have input into the curriculum. It could be anything from chess to yoga, or talks about emotional well-being.
The hope is the faculty member will get to know the student on a deeper level and students will have a comfortable setting to discuss something that might be bothering them.
“We’re trying to get to the whole child, teach the whole child the social, emotional aspect not just the academic aspect,” said George, who acknowledges students can feel the pressure of grades, athletics, other extracurricular activities, home activities, college admission, etc. “… Life is going fast for everybody. These students have pressure on them.
“We’re giving them an outlet, giving them this time during the week where they can take a breath and say, ‘You know what, somebody does care, somebody is listening to me,’ I think it is one way to start, so we’re going to try that this year and see how that goes.”
Robinette believes it’s a worthwhile effort that will be helpful “to go to a comfort level for these kids because kids won’t open up to you,” he said. “They don’t anymore because they know how to pick up the phone, they’re losing communication skills through telephones.”
Tribe Time falls under the Nauset’s Tiered System of Support three-tiered behavioral and academic intervention program that is being promoted by the S.C. Dept. of Education and implemented in Georgetown County.
The Georgetown County School District created a full-time position at Waccamaw High for a RBHS counselor, and Godbold was hired. The RBHS program is designed to serve children with a history of disruptive and emotional behavior patterns at school or home, and students can be referred to counselors by parents, faculty, etc.
“To have one put over here is an obvious acknowledgment that we’ve got to do something and we’re going to do something. I think every school could use it,” said Godbold, who didn’t know either child. “I think the staff is very engaged. Teachers come up to me working on their own initiatives individually trying to help other kids and other teachers recognize signs and recognize safe places to talk and stuff like that. From that perspective I see a lot of good things happening. Tragedy often awakens those things.”
South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman has proposed a RBHS mental health counselor in every school in the state, but few schools have their own. Other RBHS counselors in Georgetown County have two schools apiece.
The Waccamaw Center has advertised Godbold’s former position but has yet to fill it, so students who are seen by center counselors have to travel to its Georgetown location. An office at Waccamaw High is available for the pending hire, and some of his former patients still see Godbold at the high school in his new role.
Longtime school psychologist Emma Wheeler splits time between the high school and Waccamaw Middle School and is on campus Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Every school in Georgetown County has a psychologist at least two days a week. “So she’s readily available if needed,” George said.
Waccamaw High also has three guidance counselors who are receiving eight hours of training in a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid.
Through the Georgetown School District, NAMI representatives gave an “Ending the Silence” presentation and training session in September for all faculty members at Waccamaw system schools, and George anticipates having them return to work with students as well now that approximately six months have passed.
Late last school year, mental health counselors from the state visited Waccamaw High and classrooms hosted speakers.
Student groups have formed to provide support for fellow students. A National Suicide Prevention Day included setting up tables in the cafeteria, a pledge board for students and a social media campaign through the Jason Foundation, and there have been other awareness campaigns.
“There are several things we’re trying to do it to keep it top of mind,” Godbold said.
The RISE Walk at Waccamaw High attracted several hundred participants and raised approximately $15,000.
There are posters in every classroom and other areas of the school with numbers for NAMI, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Waccamaw Mental Health, and there are charts to help faculty identify when a student is having emotional struggles.
The Georgetown County School District also has an app — available through its website — that allows students to report multiple issues, such as bullying or drug use.
“We just have to do our best job of allowing our students to know the resources we have available, that there is help, that we’re here for them anytime they need them,” said George, who said more student resources are planned. “We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re here for you.’ We have a platform now, we have a way to try to reach every student that comes through the doors at Waccamaw High School.”
Football has been a refuge and part of the healing process for friends and former teammates of the two deceased players.
“It’s a chance for our kids to have a bond with 65 friends. It’s a chance for them to get their emotions out through athleticism, go out there and tackle each other,” Fidler said.
“It’s a chance for them to have a distraction from social media for a couple hours every day. It’s a chance for them just to be with each other and know that you have adults that care about you, you have teammates that care about you, and when people come on Friday night, you have a whole community that supports you, and you are important.
“Friday nights are a chance for our community to come together and heal.”
The team has been successful this season. After winning just one game in 2018, the Warriors went 7-3 overall in the regular season and finished 3-2 in Region 7-3A to earn a first-round playoff game Friday at Dillon.
The players have proven to be resilient. The second suicide came during spring practices, and many players initially said they didn’t want to practice that day. Neither did Fidler, truth be told. But he thought it was necessary for the team and players to give them something to do with support.
He recalled saying to the team: “We can stay here, and we can be together, and we can hit each other, and get our anger out and play football, something we all love to do. Or we can go home and sit and stare at each other and think about it more.”
“Was it the best practice we ever had? Heck no,” Fidler said. “But we had a practice, and every day we were able to use practice as a way to heal. It’s tragic, it’s sad, it sucks. But without football what would we do?”
Some Warriors are paying tribute to their former teammates. One player changed his number to that of a deceased player, and other players are wearing the players’ names on their undershirts during games.
“They leave gaping holes in our roster and our hearts too, but we try to get over it as best we can,” said junior quarterback Denson Crisler. “… It’s hard to see, but life goes on. You just have to play for them and try to make them proud because you know they’re watching.”
The team motto this season is EDGE, an acronym for energy, discipline, grit and execution, which is apropos in light of the circumstances.
“Those kids brought the EDGE every day,” said Crisler, who added that players now try to be more perceptive of teammates’ and other students’ problems. “It was by chance that was going to be our motto, it just so happens that those kids lived it. Now it’s up to our current team to live that, and if we live that we’ll have success, which means at the end of the day we play for them.”
Having his youngest son on the JV team gives Robinette a good reason to continue filming games for the coaching staff.
He has filmed varsity and JV games for the team since Fidler became head coach in 2017, and his wife, Teresa, still cooks pregame meals for the JV team after cooking for both the JV and B teams last season. Football is helping them cope with the loss of Jesse.
“It’s a sense of still being here and still supporting because if you don’t, that’s where you lose touch with what’s going on around you,” Robinette said. “It’s going to help us because it’s going to keep us busy and we’re here with Tom now.”
There were two memorial services for Jesse at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church: one for close friends and family and the other for Waccamaw school system students and staff. The team attended the latter en masse in their football jerseys.
“It was touching, it really was because of the show of support, and that the community is there for you too means a lot,” said Robinette, who said churches of other denominations provided meals to the family in the week after Jesse’s death.
“The players have been amazing with me. Those kids are hurting too. They’ve lost two friends. It’s not just me and my family. Teachers are hurting here too. You don’t teach someone all school year and not get to know them. It’s a big hit on the community, especially this school having two within such a short time.”
Contact info to know
▪ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
▪ National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 800-950-NAMI (6264), nami.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, text “NAMI” TO 741741 for help in a crisis
▪ Waccamaw Center for Mental Health: 843-546-6107, https://scdmh.net